Wed, May 14, 2003 - Page 11 News List

Jury awards millions in candy suit


A jury awarded US$16.7 million to a San Jose couple whose daughter died after choking on a gel candy that's now banned in the US.

Yvonne and Gil Enrile sued Taiwan-based Sheng Hsiang Jen Foods Co (盛香珍), after their 11-year-old daughter, Michelle, choked in April 1999 on sticky candy containing a dangerous gel.

The girl remained in a coma with severe brain damage until her death in July 2001.

Lawyers for the family told a Santa Clara County jury last week the candy contained conjac gel, a fibrous substance derived from the Asian elephant yam. Unlike the gels found in most chewy candies, conjac does not dissolve with heat and moisture in the mouth.

On Monday, the jury awarded US$16.7 million to the parents and their two remaining daughters, 18-year-old Sarah and 12-year-old Stephanie, who was playing with Michelle when she choked.

"This is heartbreaking, and having to relive it has been awful for everyone," plaintiffs' attorney Terry O'Reilly said.

"Since the company has never acknowledged fault and it took an FDA ban to stop selling the candy, the family is really grateful that the jury stood up and said, `You can't kill children here and get away with it,'" O'Reilly said.

Lawyers for Sheng Hsiang argued in court it was unclear what caused the girl to choke.

"Do you need a warning to say you'd better chew it?" company lawyer Frank Revere told the jury last week.

Attorneys said they plan to appeal.

The US Food and Drug Administration banned the gel in October 2001, and many large retail chains immediately pulled the candies that contained it. The candies were sold under the names Fruit Poppers, Gel-ly Drop and Jelly Yum.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs warned that many small grocery stores have not heard about the ban and may still stock the candies.

The candies, the size of an individual container of coffee creamer, are packed in small, soft plastic cups and sold in bulk in plastic jars.

The sweet gel usually comes with a piece of fruit inside a shell of jelly. After health officials in Hong Kong, Seattle, Ottawa and the San Francisco Bay area began warning that the gel does not readily dissolve, some manufacturers began including labels saying the candies were not safe for young children.

The candy is also linked to the 2000 death of Deven Joncich, 3, of Morgan Hill, which will come to trial later this year.

Around the world, more than a dozen deaths are tied to the candy. Most are in Asia, where the candy originated in 1995. In Japan, the candy has gotten the nickname "deadly mouthful."

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